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Is Digital Content Being Properly Preserved?

by on November 9, 2015

It’s clear libraries and librarians face unique challenges as more and more content is presented digitally. One of the concerns I have heard from librarians relates to one of their primary missions: preservation. As an author, I share this concern. It’s been said that literature is writing that fifty years after the author’s death is forced upon high-school students by their teachers, who strive to explain what the author meant when he wrote “the sky is blue.”

But fifty years after my death, the world will likely be a different place, with different readers and much different devices. So how will my now largely digital content survive? It’s a real question, because there are many differences between the preservation of something physical and something digital. Back when computers were young, I saved my work in Word Perfect file formats to my hard drive, and backed it up on floppy disks. At first these disks were huge, and actually floppy. Then they got smaller, and had a hard casing. Easier to protect and longer lasting, we were assured. So we copied our files faithfully, counting on the media to be trustworthy.

I put many of those disks away where they would be safe. Why print those stories out and cart around a file cabinet full of paper? After all, they were stored safely forever in digital form. Except something happened. First, the file formats became obsolete, and newer programs could not properly read them. Sometimes I could retrieve my work, but the formatting would be horrible. Then computers moved on, and the disks themselves became obsolete. Very few computers had drives that would read them, and the disks (or at least those that I didn’t lose) deteriorated. Even a machine with the right drive could not retrieve the data. My stories were lost.

The Challenges

Data Migration
But things are different now, right? We have CDs, thumb drives, the cloud, and hard drives designed to last forever. Wrong. Amazon has already changed its primary format for Kindle. Older formats and different formats are supported, and while it is important to know the differences, there is no industry standard or guarantee about which formats will last and which ones will not. This issue, known as data migration, is critical to any repository of knowledge. Besides that, thumb drives fail, CDs get damaged, and “indestructible” hard drives fail. There also really isn’t a “cloud” where your data is stored. The cloud is just someone else’s computer. So without a solid preservation plan, no data is really secure.

No Printed Version
Not all books are produced in print. In fact, with edits done digitally, they may never be printed at all, even by the author. If there is no paper copy, are digital-only books really being preserved?

The answer is no even when an individual buys e-books: they don’t own them, and neither do libraries. the content is only licensed for specific uses, and often libraries pay a premium for the “right” to lend them. So likely the only person with “real” copies of the file are the author and the publisher, if applicable since many authors are now self-publishing.

A recent article explains why it’s difficult for libraries to lend e-books. let alone preserve them. “It would plainly violate copyright law for publishers to put such restrictions on libraries for paperback or hardcover books. That is covered by the “first-sale” doctrine of copyright law, which says once somebody buys something, they’re free to do what they like with it—donate it, resell it, or in the case of libraries, lend it out. The thing about ebooks, though, is that libraries and consumers don’t buy them, instead paying for the aforementioned license—which isn’t covered by first-sale doctrine.”

The problem is further complicated by the way libraries acquire those licenses. They have a few choices for services, but they are restrictive and often expensive. They certainly can’t preserve the digital works in question, as they only have access to them as long as they keep paying their subscription fees.

Cheri Rendler, of the Public Library in Meridian Idaho, answered a few questions about how things work, or in many cases, don’t when it comes to libraries and e-books.

  • Budget
    On the issue of money, she states: “Our collection budget remains flat, so we cannot increase the amount allocated to digital unless we take it from another collection line. We also need to consider platform fees for the digital services we carry.” In other words, without an increase in funding, the money available must be shifted. So if a library buys more e-books they will have less money for physical books or other products or programs.
  • The Current Situation
    So is the preservation of digital content being handled well?  “No. Formats, platforms, ownership of content are all over the place and there are few if any uniform standards,” Cheri answered.. ”Currently publishers and vendors control the access, and libraries often have to ‘rebuy’ leased copies every year, or 26 checkouts, or similar models. There is no standard repository or funding to ensure it is updated as technology changes. While the HathiTrust is a start in preserving content, a lot of it is under copyright, so access is limited to the members of institutions who uploaded content, and it does not include works that have only been published digitally.”
  • Solutions?
    “(We need to) continue to let publishers know we want an ownership model that allows for preservation of the digital content,”  Cheri stated. There appears to be little that can be done on a local level, but there are some national efforts, like the Digital Public Library of America. Still, there are many obstacles to overcome before they can be successful, including funding and standardized formats. The core issue of preservation will only be solved by a revision of the ownership/subscription model, and that can only be accomplished through negotiations with the publishers and other creators of content. Even then, the issues of migrating digital content to new formats will have to be factored into budgets, and measures will have to be taken to “ensure that the original content is not altered or access removed, and to preserve our literary culture,” says Cheri Rendler.

In the end one of the primary missions of libraries is to preserve knowledge and make it publicly available. Publishers, authors, and vendors alike need to recognize that mission, facilitate it, and make it happen

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